‘I hate this place’: Soldiers put through hell
"ARE you fit?" my editor asked me, in the same sort of way you'd ask someone if they'd willingly step into a ring with Terrence Crawford.
She already knew the answer was a laughable no.
Under my desk was a backpack and a $40 sleeping bag I'd frantically bought at Kmart with a label that promised to keep me warm even when the mercury dropped to zero.
That was June 18 and a few days after my editors had told me I was shipping off to join the Australian Army in a fake war, a $15 million two-week exercise staged in the Queensland bush.
Exercise Hamel is the army's biggest event of the year, designed to evaluate the war fighting skills of a brigade.
It's two weeks of all-out war - even the Kiwis, Brits and Americans fly over to put the brigade through its paces.
This year, more than 9000 men and women descended on the central Queensland town of Rockhampton to put Brisbane's 7th Brigade to the test - a test I was going to witness.
"This isn't going to be a holiday," the Australian Army public affairs officer told me. "It's probably going to be the hardest thing you've ever done."
I really wanted to ask how appropriate Vans would be as footwear for my army embed but considering how hard the editors laughed when I asked them, I kept things broad.
"So, in terms of shoes?" I asked the media minder.
"No high heels obviously; just wear what a soldier would wear," she said.
After that conversation, it was another frantic trip to Kmart to buy a $20 pair of boots that were soldier-ish and I felt a little better prepared.
Still pretty sure I was being sent as a punishment, wearing boots I hadn't had time to break in and having my fellow journos yell out "haha you're going to die", I flew out of Sydney, imagining the office chuckling to themselves as they thought of me crawling through mud and rolling through bushes.
Hours later, I was settling into my own private tent - an open-air fixture perched on a concrete slab that could've easily fit 20 people - on Rockhampton base.
As I started to fall asleep, I even jotted down a few notes in my phone: "Warm as (thank god for Kmart). Things are going well. Feels just like a school camp."
Even having to use my only nice shirt as a towel and my jumper as a pillow wasn't slowing me down. Army camp wasn't that bad.
Half an hour after I dozed off, I woke with no feeling in my feet and hips.
A man was snoring loudly next door, my body was violently shivering, and I'd fallen asleep on the metal bar that kept my army-issued stretcher together.
Realising my Kmart sleeping bag had lied to me and wasn't even good to 2C, I put on another pair of socks and tried to warm up, holding my phone inside my sleeping bag as the condensation became so bad little droplets of water started to drip on my face.
By the time my alarm went off at 6am, I realised I'd been awake for the entire night having to continually shuffle on my stretcher, bury my face into my sleeping bag to stop it from freezing and wriggling my toes to stop them from falling off.
But I had interviews to do and people to be chirpy for so a few coffees later, we were off to Shoalwater Bay, the training area where much of the war was being staged.
We were first taken to a simulated mass casualty event where Australian soldiers had walked into a hidden group of insurgents, resulting in 10 injured people.
The soldiers dived into bushes, dragged their fake injured friends down the dirt road and slung each other over their shoulders. It was hot, sweaty, filthy work and they did it all while wearing heavy armour and helmets, and holding even heavier guns.
"Once you all stink up, no one notices," Major Green, the public affairs officer who was escorting me, said. I was more worried about the boys fake dying in the thick Queensland bush getting bitten by a snake.
Each casualty was given a detailed script of their injuries and how they were supposed to act.
A fake civilian casualty screamed at the Australian soldiers: "Take care of me! You only care about Aussies!"
A man with a fake head injury, whose card told him he was disorientated and should be wandering off, did exactly that, meandering into the bush and forcing the soldiers to chase after him.
Others were less inclined to throw themselves into the acting.
"Bro, that blood looks sick on your kneecap pad, it's making it so shiny," a soldier with a fake shoulder injury told his wounded friend.
The same soldier with the supposedly wounded shoulder then passed his gun up to a comrade using his bung arm.
"F**k, your arm is working fine mate, what are you doing?" he joked.
After the 10 casualties were carried out to a chopper and flown to nearby HMAS Canberra, we were taken to 7th Brigade's temporary headquarters.
We were given ration packs and Major Green and I heated up a pre-cooked chicken korma.
The sun wasn't far off setting so talk turned to ensuring I received the "full army experience".
I was "cammed up", a nickname for covering your face in camouflage paint and pulling on body armour, a helmet, night-vision goggles and a gun.
All I could manage was, "OK this is all very heavy".
"You'd get used to it," a soldier told me, adding later that the gear soldiers carry can easily weigh more than 30kg. I was barely stopping myself from toppling over.
But of course the full experience wouldn't be complete if I didn't spend the night outside with the soldiers under a camouflage net and next to a Bushmaster - a game-changing Aussie-made vehicle that was designed to save the lives of soldiers driving over improvised explosive devices.
It's estimated the Bushmaster has saved hundreds of lives in the Middle East, and from my three days with the soldiers, it's clear that Holden was never Australia's best-loved vehicle.
"That's a Bushmaster. You know it was invented in Australia?" at least 10 soldiers told me.
But sadly my night of camping next to a Bushmaster and in the Queensland dust with my Kmart sleeping bag wasn't going to be made a reality.
"The condensation has been so bad I've been waking up soaking wet and freezing," an officer told me, describing it as so bad soldiers said it was like it was raining from their tarps.
Weak and exhausted, I decided to take up the offer of a night's sleep in a tent.
As I burrowed my face into my sleeping bag in my second lonely tent I (finally) overheard two soldiers having a whinge.
"I f**king hate this place; I'm f**king sick of being cold," one of them said.
I wanted to go outside and comiserate with my obvious soulmate but my numb feet wouldn't allow it.
The next morning, I woke up with about two hours of sleep under my belt and ready to seize my last full day in army world.
Walking out of my tent in my civvies, a random soldier stormed towards me.
Armed with his rifle, I was petrified I'd been thrown into a scenario unawares.
"Excuse me, who the hell are you?" he bellowed.
To train the soldiers as realistically as possible in a war-type scenario, the organisers of Exercise Hamel throw a few civilian spies into the mix to gather intel and feed it to the "enemy".
There's even a detainment camp for spies they catch doing exactly that.
After a brief attempt at trying to make him believe I was a journalist, I name-dropped Brigadier Anthony Rawlins name, the Commander of the 7th Brigade, and he finally backed off.
As I made my escape to the women's bathroom, another soldier stopped me just as I'd stepped inside.
"Oh my god, are you a civilian? You didn't bring a straightener did you?" she asked me.
After that, we were off to morning orders, where officers are given their directions and tactics for the day including when each group was moving forward.
"A bit of admin to start, everyone should be making sure their soldiers have turned their phones to aeroplane mode and then turned them off," the man leading the orders began.
"The enemy will be attempting to track us now and we can't take any chances."
Pulling out my phone and awkwardly putting it on aeroplane mode, I noted down what he'd just said.
By the time the meeting turned to actually running through the day's top secret mission orders, I was still taking notes on my phone.
"C2 is going to move to E3 for the RDR to the BMV and to the B1," I thinkhe said before I felt a nudge on my shoulder.
"Put that away or you're going to get us in a lot of trouble," Major Green told me.
I looked up and realised 40 pairs of eyes belonging to 40 camouflage-wearing men were staring at me, obviously contemplating if I was in the process of betraying them to their enemy.
I wanted to show them what I was typing - "Mission orders started. Did not understand a word" - but the staring was enough.
"And do not f**king use any white light at all anymore, that will give the f**king game away," he told the room, as I silently apologised for using my phone torch the night before.
After mission orders ended, we wandered around the camp, talking to reservists, US Marines and just about every kind of soldier you can imagine.
"I think I might change my socks today," one lamented when I asked about the exciting things they'd done so far. "It's been a week."
Just before 3pm and after another ration meal, we were told we'd scored a helicopter ride to another base.
Standing around 20 metres away from the rotating blades, one of the soldiers working as a spotter for the helicopter screamed at me.
"Have you been in a helicopter before?" I frantically shook my head.
As he gave me earplugs and told me to put them in, I caught the end of his sentence.
"I'm going to give you a quick safety briefing," he screamed.
We then engaged in a minute of awkward head dancing where I frantically tried to read his lips and he kept trying to shout his briefing into my ear.
Despite our nose-to-nose conversation, all I could gather was vague detail encouraging me to vomit if I really felt the need and something about my seatbelt, which in hindsight, was probably important.
After my briefing, the helicopter veterans made it clear I hadn't been put on the chopper to simply get from A to B - I was going to bloody enjoy it.
With both sides of the helicopter open we wove in and out of Queensland's hills, tipping side to side and tactically flying as the rest of the crew laughed at my panic-stricken face and watched me pull my seatbelt tighter and tighter.
Thursday rolled around fast and I cheerily packed my bag ready to get out of there and ecstatic to wash the caked-on dirt out of my hair and wake up with feeling in my face.
On the way to the airport, the public affairs group that had so kindly escorted me around for the past few days received a phone call.
It was from the ABC's risk assessment team, making sure their journalist would be well-taken care of while doing the same thing I'd just done - sleeping out with the battle troops for Exercise Hamel.
"There definitely won't be live fire," the public affairs officer assured them over the phone. "Of course there'll be a safety briefing before they get on the helicopter."
"I will make sure they're escorted and with us the entire time," he added, assuring the ABC the army would try to put the journalist in a tent instead of on the ground.
Remembering my non-existent brief and how the editors had told me to just "go and see what happens" I thought about how nice it might be to work for the public broadcaster.
Three days in the army left me filthy, dusty and freezing but now that I can finally feel my feet again I do understand the attraction.
Hearing soldiers joke with their mates about spending the morning cutting tyres from an aeroplane so they can parachute down to waiting soldiers or spending weeks sleeping under the stars could definitely have its perks.
The helicopter rides also don't hurt.